Impossible Images

Radio astronomy, the SKA and the art of seeing

How strange these representations become when they are at their limits. Their dullness is fascinating in its own right, as if transcendence were secretly boring.

James Elkins, Six Stories from the Edge of Representation.

If this story must be written, we must have the courage to eliminate all adjectives that tend to excite wonder: they would achieve the opposite effect, of impoverishing the narrative. For a discussion of stars our language is inadequate and seems laughable, as if someone were trying to plow with a feather. It’s a language that was born with us, suitable for describing objects more or less as large and as long-lasting as we are; it has our dimensions, it’s human. It doesn’t go beyond what our senses tell us. Until two or three hundred years ago, small meant the scabies mite; there was nothing smaller, nor, as a result, was there an adjective to describe it. The sea and the sky were big, in fact equally big; fire was hot. Not until the thirteenth century was the need felt to introduce into daily language a term suitable for counting “very” numerous objects, and, with little imagination, “million” was coined. A while later, with even less imagination, “billion” was coined, with no care being taken to give it a precise meaning, since the term today has different values in different countries.

Not even with superlatives does one get very far: how many times as high as a high tower is a very high tower? Nor can we hope for help from disguised superlatives, like “immense,” “colossal,” “extraordinary”: to relate the things that we want to relate here, these adjectives are hopelessly unsuitable, because the star we started from was ten times as big as our sun, and the sun is “many” times as big and heavy as our Earth, whose size so overwhelms our own dimensions that we can represent it only with a violent effort of the imagination. There is, of course, the slim and elegant language of numbers, the alphabet of the powers of ten, but then this would not be a story in the sense in which it wants to be a story; that is, a fable that awakens echoes, and in which each of us can perceive distant reflections of himself and of the human race.

Italo Calvino, ‘A Tranquil Star’.


That night they lay down beneath the reeded slats of the ceiling, and above it, unbeknownst to them, some or other half of the 88 constellations.

No one talks about Lacaille’s constellations. No one points out the Telescope, the Microscope, the Air Pump. No one points them out, but one feels it is mostly Lacaille’s own fault.

A few people talk about Mensa, but almost no one. The constellation of Table Mountain, with its little Magellanic cloud above. No one talks about the Easel, the Compass, the Chisel. 

Everyone in Sutherland has a telescope and a little astronomy spiel and new ways of tackling the problem of scale. New ways to make things understandable and therefore amazing, and new ways of getting it all wrong.

“Light travels three times around the world in the click of your fingers.” “If that baby got in an airplane right now, he’d be an old man by the time he arrived at Mars!”

We aren’t able, really, to understand where we are, what is happening to us. You can’t live life in perspective.

A few people talk about Mensa, but almost no one. Table Mountain is the only geographical object with its own constellation. The only this, the only that. The only time you’ll see Jupiter, Venus and the moon in this precise alignment. The only time they will be together quite like this, and yet so similar to so many other times. So similar to their other relationships. So similar to every other relationship.

Anna Hartford, ‘But Right Now You Must Know More About Heaven’.